Theories and Essays

A Critical Introduction to the Art Theory of Jacques Rancière

By Ruth Jones February 2011

Particularly in a postmodern society, Jacques Rancière has become an increasingly important figure in the role of critical thought surrounding contemporary art. At the request of the art world in 2004 (“The invitation to open the fifth Internationale Sommerakademie of Frankfurt-on-Main, on 20 August 2004…” Rancière, Emancipated Spectator, 2008) Rancière was invited to apply his multidisciplinary critique to contemporary art. However unexpected for Rancière -“The proposal initially caused me some bewilderment.” (Rancière, Emancipated Spectator, 2008)  – this seemed logical to someone whose goal was to “…shatter the boundaries that separate specialists – of philosophy, art, social sciences, etc…” (Artforum March 2007)

But why is the critical thought of this multidicsiplinarian so relevant to contemporary art? What impact might it have on artists and spectators alike? In order to investigate this further I intend to look at the chapter Aesthetics as Politics in his book Politics of Aesthetics; His book, The Emancipated Spectator; and Articles in Artforum March 2007, Kristin Ross on Jacques Rancière and Art of the Possible Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Rancière.

A Theory of Art

The first area I wish to consider discusses what I believe Rancière sets out as his theory of art in Aesthetics as Politics and The Emancipated Spectator.

It will become more apparent as this Critical Introduction into Rancière’s theories progresses that his methods of putting across theories are unique. “Rancière’s work does not offer prescriptions, prophecies or norms for action.” (Ross, 2007). There is a sense that having read, cogitated and discussed his ideas, Rancière would experience no anxiety should we turn from them. “I am aware that of all this it might be said: words, yet more words and nothing but words. I shall not take it as an insult.”  (Rancière, 2009, page 22). It is from this point it becomes apparent that Rancière propounds a theory, not an ideology, on the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics. This removes the sense of austerity that is often felt when considering critical theory. His is a theory, a sounding board for discussion and activity, a tool to be used, not an edict to be received and acted out as instructed.

For Rancière politics and aesthetics share certain sensibilities. Politics “…is the configuration of a specific space, the framing of a particular sphere of experience, of objects posited as common and as pertaining to a common decision, of subjects recognized as capable of designating these objects and putting forward arguments about them.”(Rancière, 2004). And “…the specificity of art consists in bringing about a reframing of material and symbolic space. And it is in this way that art bears upon politics.” Both art and politics shape the spaces that people share, common spaces.

Rancière chooses to redefine ways of identifying art into three categories. The foundation for which come into being when he discusses equality and emancipation as it pertains to politics, and the ideas of “free play” that he appropriated from Schiller.

Equality and Emancipation

Using politics as a starting point, Rancière probes Aristotle’s consideration of certain categories of people – who possesses speech and who merely possesses voice. “Man, said Aristotle, is political because he possesses speech, a capacity to place the just and the unjust in common, whereas all the animal has is a voice… But the whole question is to know who possesses speech and who…possesses voice. For all time the refusal to consider certain categories of people as political beings has proceeded by means of a refusal to hear the words exiting their mouths as discourse.” (Rancière, 2004).  This refusal to consider certain categories of people as human, political, capable of speech not just voice, appears to be denied simply because those who possessed speech did not like the words they were hearing and so equated them with mere animal voice, braying in pain or pleasure.

Rancière investigates further by drawing a comparison between Aristotle’s suggestion that certain people are denied speech with Plato’s description that “their material incapacity to occupy the same space-time of political things… artisans have time for nothing but their work. Of course this ‘nothing’ which they have no time to do, is to be at the people’s assembly. Their ‘absence of time’ is actually a naturalized prohibition written into the very forms of sensory experience.” (Rancière, 2004, page).  This denial of equality either by those who possess speech or by social role is something that Rancière chooses to address in one instance and deems the result of which politics; “Politics occurs when those who ‘have no time’ take the time necessary to front up as inhabitants of a common space and demonstrate that their mouths really do emit speech capable of making pronouncements on the common which cannot be reduced to voices signalling pain.” (Rancière, 2004, Page).

This amalgamation of the concepts both Aristotle and Plato purport, results in what Rancière terms as the distribution of the sensible. Rancière believes that these politics redistribute common spaces and identities, speech and noise, repeatedly which is the distribution of the sensible. Politics is an arena in which the sensible is constantly redistributed – it renders visible that which was unseen before, turns noise into speech, and reasserts common spaces, repeatedly. (Rancière, 2004, page).

“Free Play”

From the distribution of the sensible, Rancière moves on to consider the state of “Free Play” as set forth  by Friedrich Schiller in his series of letters entitled On the Aesthetic Education of Man, and begins to appropriate his ideas to enable him to construct the three regimes for the identification of art.

Rancière describes the art work as important not as an object in itself but as a focal point for “free play”. “Man shall only play with beauty, and he shall play only with beauty.”(Schiller, 2004, page 80). Here Schiller suggests that we play with ideas of beauty.

The focal point for that Beauty is the Juno Ludovici, a Greek statue. This statue is a “free appearance”. Here Rancière defines the “free appearance” of the statue as not “affirming the artist’s unlimited power of creation, not to demonstrate the powers specific to a particular medium…what…the ‘free appearance’ …manifests is the essential characteristic…’idleness’, or ‘indifferency’” of the statue. (Rancière, 2004 page 27).This self contained art work is indifferent, it is not about the likeness the artist achieved or the skill of the artist, nor is it about the statue itself. The statue is idle. This idleness allows us to play freely with ideas about it, ideas that are not beholden to it nor to its creator.

Rancière values that state of play. Play is a gratuitous activity that intends no serious outcome; ideas are free to be contemplated without thought of gain, reward or responsibility – factors which usually dictate our existence. Play is freedom from our assigned roles and from those with speech; “Play’s freedom is contrasted to the servitude of work.” (Rancière, 2004, page 31). This free play of ideas is important – these are what Rancière considers to be equalisers.

Identifying Art

Part of the radicality of Rancière’s ideas exist in his refusal to accept common frames of historical or cultural reference. His concepts overwrite Modernity, Post modernity, Autonomous art and the Avant-garde, leaving us bereft of the markers we are accustomed to using in our own identification of art. (Berrebi, 2008).

Rancière is happy to break from critical tradition. He considers tradition as a wheel which revolves between one idea and another perpetually: “the mechanism of inversion that transforms reality into illusion or illusion into reality…” and “The machine can work in this way until the end of time, capitalizing on the impotence of the critique that unveils the impotence of the imbeciles.” “Instead I have suggested…a change of approach. At the heart of this approach is the attempt to uncouple the link between the emancipatory logic of capacity and the critical logic of collective inveiglement.” (Rancière, 2009, page 48).

It is in his chapter The Misadventures of Critical Thought in The Emancipated Spectator that Rancière describes the cycle that critical thought has got itself into and cannot get itself out of. In particular, he comments on the manner in which critics make observations on capitalism. That is the wheel that turns back and forth. On the one hand we are compelled to react against the driving forces behind the images we consume, however on the other hand, the critics are reliant on that very consumption in order to propound their beliefs that society is predestined to consume.  As Rancière states “political radicalism is likewise a phenomenon of youth fashion.” (Rancière, 2009, Page 28). Radicalism has become a consumable practice.

He wishes to construct a new conceptual structure of art “To establish the edifice of art means to define a certain regime for the identification of art…” (pg 27 Aesthetics as politics). Rancière divides the identification of art into three distinct categories, and his consideration of those categories gives a clue as to the type of art he values the most.

The Ethical Regime of Art

In the first regime for identifying art, Rancière continues to use Schiller’s example of the Juno Ludovici. Ethical artworks are those “…images that are judged in terms of their intrinsic truth…” (Rancière, 2004, Page28). To me this takes any of the ideals of the subject being represented and looks to see if they have been conveyed by the work. So in the case of Juno Ludovici, is the divinity of the goddess present? That is the intrinsic truth of that artwork.

The Representational Regime of Art

The second regime for identifying art “frees the stone goddess from judgements about the validity of the divinity…” (Rancière, 2004, page 29). In this instance we see the statue as a representation. And, as such, the statue or sculpture is “…viewed through an entire grid of expressive conventions…” (Rancière, 2004, Page 29). I believe that this regime identifies more obvious, analogous and figurative art forms.

The Aesthetic Regime of Art

It is in this final stage of the identification of art that Rancière turns Schiller’s ideas of “free play” into a regime. “…in the aesthetic regime of art, the property of being art is no longer given by the criteria of technical perfection but is ascribed to a specific form of sensory apprehension. The statue is a ‘free appearance’”. (Rancière, 2004, Page 29).

Rancière goes on to discuss play further and begins to equate play to learning. Every individual, regardless of social role or the possession of speech or voice, is capable of play. Every individual is capable of learning. “The human animal learns everything in the same way as it initially learnt its mother tongue, as it learnt to venture of the forest of things and signs surrounding it, so as to take its place among human beings: by observing and comparing one thing with another, a sign with a fact, a sign with another sign.” (Rancière, 2009, page 10).  What we learn is not necessarily as important as the fact that we can learn. And learning free from the responsibility of what is expected of us (class/jobs/roles etc in society) makes us equal. Learning free from the responsibility of what is expected of us is also play. Art is capable of helping us to achieve this.

For Rancière, the aesthetic regime of art emancipates people. This type of art is a driver of equality. It is a place in which people choose to share the same sensibilities. Everyone has the same ability to learn – this is the essence of the politics of aesthetics – art makes people human again when they choose to enter into the political space of art, people rescind their superiorities, inferiorities, they are no longer disconnected, they think and learn something new and that is what Rancière finds aesthetic. “Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly man when he is playing.” (Friedrich Schiller)

Reflections on the Relevance of the Theories of Jacques Rancière to Contemporary Art

I believe that in examining Rancière’s theories of art and identifying art I have begun to answer my first question: Why is the critical thought of this multidicsiplinarian so relevant to contemporary art?

Rancière has commented on contemporary art. Increasingly artists no longer define themselves by the medium they practice. They choose instead to represent their ideas in the most appropriate means, regardless of specialism. It is little wonder that his comments on the space in which art occurs and its ability to reach spectators flatter contemporary modes of practice.  “…Contemporary art, in which all specific artistic skills tend to leave their particular domain and swap places and powers. Today we have theatre without speech, and spoken dance; installations and performances by way of plastic works…and other combinations.” (Rancière, 2009, page 21).

He has begun to comment on his involvement in contemporary art: “I write to shatter the boundaries that separate specialists – of philosophy, art, social sciences…I write for those who are trying to tear down the walls between specialities and competences…The contemporary art world may be more receptive, because contemporary art is, quintessentially, art defined by the erasure of medium specificity, indeed by the erasure of the visibility of art as a distinct practice.” (Carnevale and Kelsey, 2007).

And most importantly, he has set out a theory, not an ideology. A theory that can be used as a tool, not a straight jacket formula by which to create art.

What Impact Might the Theories of Jacques Rancière Have on Artists and Spectators?

By considering the aesthetic regime of art we can tell what Rancière considers as effective art. In order to do this I want to examine the process in reverse, starting with the spectator and working through artworks to artists.

The Emancipated Spectator

In his book The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière expands on his themes of equality, learning and, without naming it as such, on the aesthetic regime of art.

The word spectator carries an almost derogatory meaning to those to whom it is applied. It suggests passivity, that the person is incapable of activity and that they have no means to affect what they are observing. (Rancière, 2009, page 2). Rancière takes this term and embodies it with new life, reappropriating its meaning and transforming it into a badge of honour.

To lead us through the negative connotations of the spectator, Rancière discusses the Platonian view of spectators; “…theatre is the place where ignoramuses are invited to see people suffering…A true community is therefore one that does not tolerate theatrical mediation.” (Rancière, 2009, Page 3). Rancière tells us that the spectator is considered as a negative term throughout history for two reasons: “…viewing is the opposite of knowing.” And “To be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act.” (Rancière, 2009, Page 2).

Rancière approaches the spectator as being not separated from the capacity to know, but as an actor, an observer:“The spectator also acts…She observes, selects, compares, interprets. She links what she sees to a host of other things that she has seen on other stages, in other kinds of place…She participates in the performance by refashioning it in her own way…They are thus both distant spectators and active interpreters of the spectacle offered to them.” (Rancière, 2009, page13).

This change in view, from passive to active, from capable not only of knowing, but also interpreting and refashioning the information received, means that the spectator becomes emancipated. It is unsurprising to know that Rancière requires an art form that will not repress a spectator’s natural inclination to come to their own conclusions.

In order gain further insight into art works that Rancière values I intend to compare two artists discussed in The Emancipated Spectator. Martha Rosler and Alfredo Jarr both demonstrate similar principles and goals in their work. Both deal with the intolerable. However the manner in which they deal with it varies, in both form and efficacy.

Rancière discusses the intolerable which is “…deemed too real, too intolerably real to be offered in the form of an image…the image is pronounced unsuitable for criticising reality because it pertains to the same regime of visibility as that reality.” (Rancière, 2009, page 83).

Martha Rosler utilises intolerable images of war and juxtaposes them with images of suburban homes and housewives. However it is the very use of the intolerable image which is Martha Rosler’s downfall. The images are intended to provoke guilt about the war and what it represents; the American consumerist dream. As Rancière states; “For the image to produce its political effect, the spectator must already be convinced that what it shows is American imperialism, not the madness of human beings in general. She must also be convinced that she is herself guilty of sharing in the prosperity rooted in imperialistic exploitation of the world. And she must further feel guilty about being there and doing nothing; about viewing these images of pain and death, rather than struggling against the powers responsible for it.” (Rancière, 2009, page 85).

Conversely, the work of Alfredo Jaar, deals with the intolerable, but instead conceals it. “…It is a question of constructing an image – that is to say, a certain connection between the verbal and the visual. The power of this image is that it disturbs the ordinary regime of that connection, such as it is employed in the official system of information.” (Rancière, 2009, page 95). The efficacy of Jaar’s work over Rosler’s is that it shows less, not more. He constructs images and stories that confront the viewer. As Rancière states; “…the dominant media by no means drown us in a torrent of images testifying to massacres…quite the reverse, they reduce their number, taking good care to select and order them. They eliminate from them anything that might exceed the simple superfluous illustration of their meaning…but we do see too many nameless bodies, too many bodies incapable of returning the gaze that we direct at them, too many bodies that are an object of speech without themselves having a chance to speak.” (Rancière, 2009, Page 96).

These bodies are what Rosler uses in her work. Jaar instead chooses to direct the gaze of the victim of atrocities at the spectator. All that is seen is the gaze, no more detail than that. Underneath the gaze is a written account of what the victim, Gutete, is looking at.

Alfredo Jaar, The Eyes of Gutete, 1996.          Martha Rosler, Red Stripe Kitchen 1967-1972 printed early    1990s

Conclusion

I would find it interesting to see if Rancière could apply his criteria of art to works that are not obviously political. His theories indicate that by its pure existence, Art is political. This should mean that art should not have to contain a political message.

As an artist I find his ideas illuminating, particularly with regards to the political role that art fulfils. I believe that art is important. Not as an object, but with regards to what it can do for people. In that respect I feel that Rancière’s work is important. I find his theory engaging and the notion that I can use aspects of his theories to help me to understand my intentions as an artist, and, equally, the parts that I disagree with have helped form my own sensibilities and I can disregard them with no expense to the author.

Ultimately I believe Jacques Rancière to be an important critical figure in contemporary art. He has reappropriated negative terms such as the spectator and given them new life. His idea’s help to shape how artists think about their work being received. And he has held art and aesthetics on a par with politics, examining what links the two.

Bibliography

Berreb, S. 2008. Jacques Ranciére: Aesthetics is Politics. ART&RESEARCH A journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Volume 2. NO1, pp. 1-5

Carnevale, F., Kelsey, J., 2007. Art of the Possible Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Ranciére. Artforum [online] Available at http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=200703id=12843 [Accessed 18 January 2011]

Jaar, A., 1996. The Eyes of Gutete [photograph]

Available at: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/art/2008/10/ [Accessed 21 January 2011]

Ranciére, J., 1999. The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Translated from French by Kirstin Ross. Stanford. Stanford University Press

Ranciére, J. 2004. Aesthetics and its Discourse. Translated from French by Steven Corcoran. Paris. Polity Books

Ranciére, J. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics. Translated from French by Gabriel Rockhill. London. Continuum

Ranciére, J. 2009. The Emancipated Spectator. Translated from French by Gregory Elliott. London. Verso

Rosler, M., 1990. Red Stripe Kitchen 1967-1972 [photo montage]

Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2002.393. [Accessed 21 January 2011]

Ross, K., 2007. Kirstin Ross on Jacques Ranciére. Artforum [online] Available at: http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=200703&id=128428&pagenum=0 [Accessed 18 January 2011]

Schiller, F., 1795. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Translated by Reginald Snell 1954. New Haven. Yale University Press. This Dover Edition 2004

Spencer, J., 2010. The Emancipated Spectator. Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, [online] Available at: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/review of books/reviews/2010/188 [Accessed 12 January 2011]

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